It’s mental health awareness week. It’s so important that we continue to develop our understanding of mental health. We’ve certainly come a long way but there is a long way to go. Much ignorance and misunderstanding remains. More people need to understand that when it comes to mental health you can’t just “pull yourself together”, you can’t turn that smile upside down at a whim, you can’t always cope and you can’t always just get on with it.
When I was around 14 years old a dark cloud gathered above my head – a symptom of two years of instinctive emotional repression, as my brain scrambled to protect my fragile young mind from the numerous traumas of my childhood.
That cloud has remained ever since, looming ominously over everything I do. Periodically it may, either spontaneously or triggered by events, descend like a mist of all-consuming sadness that saturates my soul. There it can remain for weeks, months or years… when it lifts I can only be certain that it will one day envelop me again.
Depression. It’s a state of being, for me. It doesn’t really come and go. When it’s not present I know it’s only dormant.
Wake up. Open my eyes. Feel that familiar curious mix of numbness and overbearing misery. Stand up. Feel the weight on my shoulders. My chest feels as if my lungs are partially filled with fluid. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, one by one they die, and I feel them festering. My breathing is laboured. When I exhale the air feels heavy.
Depression has common features and symptoms but it’s a subjective and distinct experience for us all. I have responded to it many different ways throughout my life as I have chosen for years to hide from my pain rather and examine it, to repress my memories and emotions rather than pick through them and try to understand myself. I chose insularity. I chose to be alone. I chose to go quiet.
That’s another key feature of my depression. Self-loathing. I can hate myself bitterly and believe that I am not meant to be happy. I will never be happy, I will never be fulfilled, nothing good will ever happen. It’s an emotional instability that can be exhausting and unpredictable.
The dizzying, racing, inner narrative: What’s the point in life? What, indeed, is so good about this day-to-day experience we call life? What’s the point? I wish I was someone else. I don’t feel good enough to be a husband to my wife. I don’t feel good enough to be a friend to my friends. I don’t feel good enough to be a father to my children. You. Are. Not. Good. Enough.
That’s what a depressive can carry with them.
Depression can strike and retract itself quickly, tainting what would ordinarily just be called a bad mood. But amidst an ordinary bad mood you don’t imagine killing yourself, you don’t consider the possible methods, imagine the funeral and consider that perhaps others would be better off without you. You don’t get briefly consumed with the rage of someone who suddenly hates their life and knows it will come to no good. The next day it might lift: it’s tiring.
For others that suffer from poor mental health all I can do is echo what many have said this week. Talk! You must talk to people; friends and family. Speak to your doctor about accessing help. Don’t turn your nose up at counselling or perhaps medication. I have spent years refusing to engage in this way and refusing to be proactive in managing my mental health and understanding myself better. It has caused so much damage. Please don’t make the same mistakes I have.
It may be unresolved childhood issues, it may be trauma in your adult life, it may be none of those things. There are people out there thinking ‘what have I got to be depressed about? My life is fine, I’ve got everything I want and need, why shouldn’t I be happy?’ Don’t think like that, the fact is you’re not. Think about exploring it, because anyone can have mental health issues. Anyone.
The fact that some people feel guilty for experiencing poor mental health or feel like frauds for having to take time off work, or feel shame, or embarrassment, is a sign that we have more to learn as a society about mental health. I say this with the zeal of the converted. I am beginning to accept it myself now and take the same advice I just gave you. If I had done this earlier my life could have been so much happier. I wouldn’t have to carry the guilt and regret.